Elizabeth Went Where? – It Happened Today, February 6, 2017

A reminder that "It Happened Today" needs your help. It takes considerable time and effort to produce. So if you're enjoying the feature, make a monthly pledge so I can continue to research and write it. Map of Liberia Colony in the 1830s, created by the ACS, and also showing Mississippi Colony and other state-sponsored colonies. (Wikipedia)

On February 6 in 1820 something really foolish happened. Which of course does not distinguish it from any other day on the calendar. But this one is a fairly trivial incident in itself that manages at the same time to be a historical whopper.

It is the departure from New York of the Elizabeth, bound for Liberia in West Africa with three white American Colonization Society members and 88 American blacks to solve the whole vexed slavery question by sending freed slaves back to West Africa to establish their own country.

It is hard to overestimate the foolishness of the venture. The fact that all the ACS members and a quarter of the blacks were dead within three weeks from yellow fever while the rest fled back to Sierre Leone to await reinforcements gives you some idea of the early difficulties although to be fair Jamestown was sort of like that too and it worked out eventually.

Liberia never could, in a very fundamental sense. The colony not only survived but prospered, and might have done better still if better-prepared settlers had succeeded in creating a genuine self-governing republic. And if so it might have done considerable good in demonstrating what American slaves could do, and be, once the shackles were struck off.

It failed even at that, as the descendants of the colonists formed a closed elite that subjugated the indigenous population; in rather ghastly typical African fashion it is not even certain when the latter got the vote. So it failed as an example. But Liberia was meant to do more than that.

It was meant to solve America’s slavery problem by exporting it. It was meant to permit emancipation by bigots and among bigots, by promising that once freed the blacks would be sent far away where Americans would not have to put up with them. It was always logistically impossible because there was obviously no way to transport millions of people across the Atlantic with tools and other necessities (there were then nearly 2 million American slaves and 200,000 free blacks) even if they could all have been freed. Dragging them to the New World as naked slaves, with high mortality rates on the dreadful "Middle Passage," was technically feasible if morally repellent. Doing the reverse was morally repellent and technically impossible.

The moral repellence was the worst thing of all. Some ACS members were genuinely unprejudiced but figured that until their countrymen and women had a change of heart the best bet for the freedman or woman was to get to a country not run by whites, as Liberia was not after 1847. Others were benevolent by the standards of the day in rejecting slavery but failed to embrace equality, while a few actually felt colonization was a deft trick for getting rid of troublemaking free blacks to help keep slaves more docile and thus preserve the "peculiar institution".

I know it is easy to say from this distance. But the only proper solution to slavery was to accept that all men are created equal, and to reject both the legal and the social subjugation of any race. If it had been necessary to proceed by abolishing the legal subjugation first and then moving on to the social, I think it would have been an acceptable second best. But nothing good was going to happen as long as people insisted that blacks were inferior and based their solutions on that premise, whether or not those solutions they were as technically absurd as sending them all to West Africa one shipload at a time. Even those genuinely unbigoted ACS members who bowed to their neighbours’ prejudice, though they come out of the story looking a lot better than anyone else, let pragmatism trump principle in ways that ultimately failed badly as they generally do.

Whatever the Liberian colonization experiment did, it utterly failed to solve the problem of American racial slavery that erupted into the internecine Civil War and even once it was done left a poisonous legacy of segregation, injustice and bitterness. As anyone capable of math, let alone moral reasoning, would have known would happen.